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Stevenson, Robert Louis 

On the choice of a 








First Impression, October, 1916. 
Second Impression, October, 1916. 

THE original manuscript of this 
essay lay for years in a bundle 
of old papers, and was always 
assumed to be the " Letter to a Young 
Gentleman Who Proposes to Em- 
brace the Career of Art." Recently, 
however, a closer examination re- 
vealed it to be a hitherto unpublished 
piece of work, and for a while I was 
greatly mystified as to its origin and 
the reason for its suppression. Its 
general character, the peculiar quality 
of the paper, even the handwriting 
itself all went to show it was com- 
posed in Saranac in the winter of 
1887-88. But why had it been sup- 
pressed ? 

Then in the dim, halting way things 
recur to one, I began to recall its 


history. It had been adjudged too 
cynical, too sombre, in tone, too out of 
keeping with the helpful philosophy 
always associated with R. L. S. In- 
stead of assisting the Young Gentle- 
man it was thought to be only too 
likely to discourage and depress him. 
Thus it was laid aside in favour of 
the other essay on the Career of Art. 
Whether we are right in publishing 
it now is for the public to decide. 
We seem to be going against the 
wishes of the author, who had 
evidently been content to leave it in 
oblivion; yet on the other hand it 
appears wrong to keep so fine an 
effort, and one so brilliant and 
grimly humorous from the many who 
would find pleasure in it. After all, 
there are others to be considered 
besides Young Gentlemen; and per- 
haps with these warned away we 

shall incur no reproach from the 
general lovers of literature, but on 
the contrary gain their support and 
commendation in the course we have 




YOU write to me, my dear sir, 
requesting advice at one of 
the most momentous epochs 
in a young man's life. You are 
about to choose a profession; and 
with a diffidence highly pleasing at 
your age, you would be glad, you say, 
of some guidance in the choice. 
There is nothing more becoming 
than for youth to seek counsel; noth- 
ing more becoming to age than to be 
able to give it; and in a civilization, 
old and complicated like ours, where 
practical persons boast a kind of 
practical philosophy superior to all 
others, you would very naturally 


expect to find all such questions 
systematically answered. For the 
dicta of the Practical Philosophy, you 
come to me. What, you ask, are the 
principles usually followed by the 
wise in the like critical junctures ? 
There, I confess, you pose me on the 
threshold. I have examined my own 
recollections; I have interrogated 
others; and with all the will in the 
world to serve you better, I fear I 
can only tell you that the wise, in 
these circumstances, act upon no prin- 
ciples whatever. This is disappoint- 
ing to you; it was painful to myself; 
but if I am to declare the truth as I 
see it, I must repeat that wisdom has 
nothing to do with the choice of a 

We all know what people say, and 
very foolish it usually is. The ques- 
tion is to get inside of these flourishes 
and discover what it is they think 


and ought to say: to perform, in short, 
the Socratic Operation. The more 
ready-made answers there are to any 
question, the more abstruse it be- 
comes; for those of whom we make 
the enquiry have the less need of 
consideration before they reply. The 
world being more or less beset with 
Anxious Enquirers of the Socratic 
persuasion, it is the object of a Liberal 
Education to equip people with a 
proper number of these answers by 
way of passport; so they can pass 
swimmingly to and fro on their 
affairs without the trouble of think- 
ing. How should a banker know his 
own mind ? It takes him all his 
time to manage his bank. If you 
saw a company of pilgrims, walking 
as if for a wager, each with his teeth 
set; and if you happened to ask them 
one after another: Whither they 
were going ? and from each you were 


to receive the same answer: that 
positively they were all in such a 
hurry, they had never found leisure 
to enquire into the nature of their 
errand: confess, my dear sir, you 
would be startled at the indifference 
they exhibited. Am I going too far, 
if I say that this is the condition of 
the large majority of our fellow-men 
and almost all our fellow-women ? 

I stop a banker. 

" My good fellow," I say, " give me 
a moment." 

" I have not a moment to spare," 
says he. 

" Why ?" I enquire. 

" I must be banking," he replies. 
" I am so busily engaged in banking 
all day long that I have hardly leisure 
for my meals." 

" And what," I continue my in- 
terrogatory, " is banking ?" 

" Sir," says he, " it is my business." 


" Your business ?" I repeat. "And 
what is a man's business ?" 

" Why," cries the banker, " a 
man's business is his duty." And 
with that he breaks away from me, 
and I see him skimming to his avoca- 

But this is a sort of answer that 
provokes reflection. Is a man's busi- 
ness his duty ? Or perhaps should 
not his duty be his business ? If it is 
not my duty to conduct a bank (and 
I contend that it is not) is it the duty 
of my friend the banker ? Who told 
him it was ? Is it in the Bible ? Is 
he sure that banks are a good thing ? 
Might it not have been his duty to 
stand aside, and let some one else 
conduct the bank ? Or perhaps 
ought he not to have been a ship- 
captain instead ? All these perplex- 
ing queries may be summed up under 
one head: the grave problem which 


my friend offers to the world: Why 
is he a Banker ? 

Well, why is it ? There is one 
principal reason, I conceive: that the 
man was trapped. Education, as 
practised, is a form of harnessing with 
the friendliest intentions. The fellow 
was hardly in trousers before they 
whipped him into school; hardly done 
with school before they smuggled him 
into an office; it is ten to one they 
have had him married into the bar- 
gain; and all this before he has had 
time so much as to imagine that 
there may be any other practicable 
course. Drum, drum, drum; you 
must be in time for school; you must 
do your Cornelius Nepos; you must 
keep your hands clean; you must go 
to parties a young man should 
make friends; and, finally you must 
take this opening in a bank. He 
has been used to caper to this sort 

of piping from the first; and he joins 
the regiment of bank clerks for pre- 
cisely the same reason as he used 
to go to the nursery at the stroke of 
eight. Then at last, rubbing his 
hands with a complacent smile, the 
parent lays his conjuring pipe aside. 
The trick is performed, ladies and 
gentlemen; the wild ass's colt is 
broken in; and now sits diligently 
scribing. Thus it is, that, out of 
men, we make bankers. 

You have doubtless been present 
at the washing of sheep, which is a 
brisk, high-handed piece of manoeu- 
vring, in its way; but what is it, as a 
subject of contemplation, to the case 
of the poor young animal, Man, 
turned loose into this roaring world, 
herded by robustious guardians, taken 
with the panic before he has wit 
enough to apprehend its cause, and 
soon flying with all his heels in the 
c 15 

van of the general stampede ? It 
may be that in after years, he shall 
fall upon a train of reflection, and 
begin narrowly to scrutinize the 
reasons that decided his path and his 
continued mad activity in that direc- 
tion. And perhaps he may be very 
well pleased at the retrospect, and 
see fifty things that might have been 
worse, for one that would have been 
better; and even supposing him to 
take the other cue, bitterly to deplore 
the circumstances in which he is 
placed and bitterly to reprobate the 
jockeying that got him into them, the 
fact is, it is too late to indulge such 
whims. It is too late, after the train 
has started, to debate the needfulness 
of this particular journey: the door is 
locked, the express goes tearing over- 
land at sixty miles an hour; he had 
better betake himself to sleep or the 
daily paper, and discourage unavail- 

ing thought. He sees many pleasant 
places out of the window: cottages 
in a garden, angles by the riverside, 
balloons voyaging the sky; but as for 
him, he is booked for all his natural 
days, and must remain a banker 
to the end. 

If the juggling only began with 
school-time, if even the domineering 
friends and counsellors had made a 
choice of their own, there might still 
be some pretension to philosophy in 
the affair. But no. They too were 
trapped; they are but tame elephants 
unwittingly ensnaring others, and 
were themselves ensnared by tame 
elephants of an older domestica- 
tion. We have all learned our tricks 
in captivity, to the spiriting of Mrs. 
Grundy and a system of rewards 
and punishments. The crack of 
the whip and the trough of fodder: 
the cut direct and an invitation to 


dinner: the gallows and the Shorter 
Catechism: a pat upon the head and 
a stinging lash on the reverse: these 
are the elements of education and the 
principles of the Practical Philosophy. 
Sir Thomas Browne, in the earlier 
part of the Seventeenth Century, had 
already apprehended the staggering 
fact that geography is a considerable 
part of orthodoxy; and that a man 
who, when born in London, makes a 
conscientious Protestant, would have 
made an equally conscientious Hindu 
if he had first seen daylight in 
Benares. This is but a small part, 
however important, of the things that 
are settled for us by our place of 
birth. An Englishman drinks beer 
and tastes his liquor in the throat; 
a Frenchman drinks wine and tastes 
it in the front of the mouth. Hence, 
a single beverage lasts the French- 
man all afternoon; and the English- 

man cannot spend above a very short 
time in a cafe", but he must swallow 
half a bucket. The Englishman takes 
a cold tub every morning in his bed- 
room; the Frenchman has an occa- 
sional hot bath. The Englishman 
has an unlimited family and will die 
in harness; the Frenchman retires 
upon a competency with three chil- 
dren at the outside. So this impera- 
tive national tendency follows us 
through all the privacies of life, dic- 
tates our thoughts and attends us to 
the grave. We do nothing, we say 
nothing, we wear nothing, but it is 
stamped with the Queen's Arms. 
We are English down to our boots 
and into our digestions. There is not 
a dogma of all those by which we 
lead young men, but we get it our- 
selves, between sleep and waking, 
between death and life, in a complete 
abeyance of the reasoning part. 


" But how, sir," (you will ask) 
" is there then no wisdom in the 
world ? And when my admirable 
father was this day urging me, with 
the most affecting expressions, to 
decide on an industrious, honest and 
lucrative employment ?" Enough, 
sir; I follow your thoughts, and will 
answer them to the utmost of my 
ability. Your father, for whom I 
entertain a singular esteem, is I am 
proud to believe a professing Chris- 
tian: the Gospel, therefore, is or ought 
to be his rule of conduct. Now, I am 
of course ignorant of the terms em- 
ployed by your father; but I quote 
here from a very urgent letter, 
written by another parent, who was 
a man of sense, integrity, great energy 
and a Christian persuasion, and who 
has perhaps set forth the common 
view with a certain innocent openness 
of his own: 


" You are now come to that time of 
life," he writes to his son, " and have 
reason within yourself to consider 
the absolute necessity of making pro- 
vision for the time when it will be 
asked Who is this man ? Is he doing 
any good in the world ? Has he the 
means of being ' One of us '? I 
beseech you," he goes on, rising in 
emotion, and appealing to his son by 
name, " I beseech you do not trifle 
with this till it actually comes upon 
you. Bethink yourself and bestir 
yourself as a man. This is the time 
" and so forth. This gentleman 
has his candour; he is perspicacious, 
and has to deal apparently with a 
perspicacious pick-logic of a son; 
and hence the startling perspicacity 
of the document. But, my dear sir, 
what a principle of life ! To " do 
good in the world " is to be received 
into a society, apart from personal 


affection. I could name many forms 
of evil vastly more exhilarating 
whether in prospect or enjoyment. 
If I scraped money, believe me, it 
should be for some more cordial 
purpose. And then, scraping money? 
It seems to me as if he had forgotten 
the Gospel. This is a view of life not 
quite the same as the Christian, 
which the old gentleman professed 
and sincerely studied to practise. 
But upon this point, I dare dilate no 
further. Suffice it to say, that look- 
ing round me on the manifestations 
of this Christian society of ours, I have 
been often tempted to exclaim: What, 
then, is Antichrist ? 

A wisdom, at least, which professes 
one set of propositions and yet acts 
upon another, can be no very entire 
or rational ground of conduct. 
Doubtless, there is much in this ques- 
tion of money; and for my part, I 


believe no young man ought to be 
at peace till he is self-supporting, 
and has an open, clear life of it on his 
own foundation. But here a con- 
sideration occurs to me of, as I must 
consider, startling originality. It is 
this: That there are two sides to this 
question as well as to so many others. 
Make more ? Aye, or spend less ? 
There is no absolute call upon a man 
to make any specific income, unless, 
indeed, he has set his immortal soul 
on being " One of us." 

A thoroughly respectable income 
is as much as a man spends. A 
luxurious income, or true opulence, is 
something more than a man spends. 
Raise the income, lower the expendi- 
ture, and, my dear sir, surprising 
as it seems, we have the same result. 
But I hear you remind me, with pursed 
lips, of privations of hardships. 
Alas ! sir, there are privations upon 
P 23 

either side; the banker has to sit all 
day in his bank, a serious privation; 
can you not conceive that the land- 
scape painter, whom I take to be the 
meanest and most lost among con- 
temporary men, truly and deliberately 
prefers the privations upon his side 
to wear no gloves, to drink beer, to 
live on chops or even on potatoes, 
and lastly, not to be " One of us " 
truly and deliberately prefers his 
privations to those of the banker ? 
I can. Yes, sir, I repeat the words; 
I can. Believe me, there are Rivers 
in Bohemia! but there is nothing 
so hard to get people to understand as 
this: That they pay for their money; 
and nothing so difficult to make them 
remember as this: That money, when 
they have it, is, for most of them at 
least, only a cheque to purchase 
pleasure with. How then if a man 
gets pleasure in following an art ? 

He might gain more cheques by follow- 
ing another; but then, although there 
is a difference in cheques, the amount 
of pleasure is the same. He gets 
some of his directly; unlike the bank 
clerk, he is having his fortnight's 
holiday, and doing what delights 
him, all the year. 

All these patent truisms have a 
very strange air, when written down. 
But that, my dear sir, is no fault of 
mine or of the truisms. There they 
are. I beseech you do not trifle with 
them. Bethink yourself like a man. 
This is the time. 

But, you say, all this is very well; it 
does not help me to a choice. Once 
more, sir, you have me; it does not. 
What shall I say ? A choice, let us 
remember, is almost more of a nega- 
tive than a positive. You embrace 
one thing; but you refuse a thousand. 
The most liberal profession imprisons 


many energies and starves many 
affections. If you are in a bank, you 
cannot be much upon the sea. You 
cannot be both afirst-rate violinist and 
a first-rate painter: you must lose in 
the one art if you persist in following 
both. If you are sure of your pre- 
ference, follow it. If not nay, my 
dear sir, it is not for me or any man , 
to go beyond this point. God made 
you; not I. I cannot even make you 
over again. I have heard of a 
schoolmaster, whose speciality it was 
to elicit the bend of each pupil: poor 
schoolmaster, poor pupils ! As for 
me, if you have nothing indigenous 
in your own heart, no living prefer- 
ence, no fine, human scorn, I leave 
you to the tide; it will sweep you 
somewhere. Have you but a grain 
of inclination, I will help you. If 
you wish to be a costermonger, be it, 
shame the devil; and I will stand the 

donkey. If you wish to be nothing, 
once more I leave you to the tide. 

I regret profoundly, my dear young 
sir, not only for you, in whom I see 
such a lively promise of the future, 
but for the sake of your admirable 
and truly worthy father and your no 
less excellent mamma, that my re- 
marks should seem no more con- 
clusive. I can give myself this 
praise, that I have kept back nothing; 
but this, alas ! is a subject on which 
there is little to put forward. It will 
probably not much matter what you 
decide upon doing; for most men 
seem to sink at length to the degree 
of stupor necessary for contentment 
in their different estates. Yes, sir, 
this is what I have observed. Most 
men are happy, and most men dis- 
honest. Their mind sinks to the 
proper level; their honour easily 
accepts the custom of the trade. I 


wish you may find degeneration no 
more painful than your neighbours, 
soon sink into apathy, and be long 
spared in a state of respectable 
somnambulism, from the grave to 
which we haste. 

R. L. S. 





Stevenson, Robert Louis 
5381 On the choice of a 

S7 profession